I wanted a low-effort path toward plant-based eating — one that's accessible to those of us who don't want to give up the multi-sensory euphoria of bacon.
Spice shopping with Chef Priyanka Naik is like touring the chocolate factory with a younger, more comely Willy Wonka. Granted, I wasn’t able to reach out and sample from a magical cardamom bush, but the experience enlightened my senses nonetheless. See, for the vegan curious such as myself, Naik is a sensory sherpa of sorts. During our time together, I wanted her to guide me on a low-effort path toward plant-based eating — one that makes veganism feel accessible to those of us who want to live better but also love umami flavors and the multi-sensory euphoria of bacon.
Naik grew up vegetarian, but she also, like me, grew up Indian — which means blandness was a distant evil you heard stories about from your cousin who once went to the Olive Garden. We love our seasonings. So I knew my potential plant-based journey had to start with her. Impossible burgers are cool (albeit scary high in sodium), but I want to learn how to make a head of cabbage, a cauliflower steak, or a fire-roasted eggplant sing. After hours of navigating aisles of aromatics, I did.
While I’d like to think of Naik, who’s a self-taught chef, as my personal culinary coach, the reality is she’s been on the rise as an authority in all things delicious and plant-based. She’s a Food Network champion (featured on Cooks Vs. Cons), an author, a host of Tastemade’s streaming Dish It Healthy series, and she’s been featured heavily on daytime shows — new fan alert: Her next appearance is on the Today Show on March 29.
What sets her apart from the plant-based noise, for one, is her comfort and experience in the space. Naik has been on the “vegan is food is actually fun” tip since she was a kid, but only recently started to see an uptick in interest from the masses. Three or four years ago, she had fewer responses to any content about a plant-based lifestyle. “The pandemic has opened up people’s eyes from a lifestyle and dietary standpoint,” she says. “We’re more aware now.”
That awareness can come with a whole lot of flavor — if we can collectively ditch the age-old idea that a plant-based diet means chewing on dry rice cakes and foraging for root vegetables. The key lies less with the plants themselves than with how you prepare them. For Naik, the right spices can awaken the senses. “I come from a really snacky family,” she tells me as she plucks a few small bags of staple dry seasonings from a shelf. “Black salt is in a lot of the street food my mom used to create at home. It gives anything at all a very umami flavor. And mango powder too; it makes me nostalgic. I grew up recognizing the flavors before I was even able to name them.”
A plant-based lifestyle, Naik says, is really more about intuition than structure. Both cooking and eating should be mindful processes where the focus, if possible, is on sensations, smells, and textures. And it doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. Naik eats vegan when she’s at home and makes exceptions when she’s on the road and doesn’t have the luxury of cooking.
I’ve personally found that the happiest vegans and vegetarians are those with a vast repertoire of affordable go-to meals and those who actively seek new flavor profiles and food experiences. It certainly helps when you come from a culture that embraces plant-based foods, like ours. There are precisely 8,000 types of sabzis (Indian vegetarian entrees) in rotation in any given South Asian household, while Indian restaurant menus will have maybe five or six. Actually, most restaurants still have very few plant-based options available. If you’re able to cook at home, like Naik does as much as she can, re-tooling leftovers is the move.
“I treat my food like it’s Hindu — it gets more than one life,” Naik tells me, when discussing how she creates a sense of adventure while combating food waste. On any given week, leftover noodles may get a chili oil and sesame treatment, and seasoned cauliflower may transform into cilantro- and lime-adorned tacos with air-fried shells to add texture. In fact, her penchant for both variety and adventure inspired her cookbook, The Modern Tiffin, which is a uniquely-crafted guide to low-waste vegan cooking.
“I treat my food like it’s Hindu — it gets more than one life.”
Tiffins, which are essentially compartmentalized lunch boxes, are a kind of genius staple of South Asian lunch culture: You pack a few different things (rice, some veggies, and some well-seasoned ground chicken if you’re me) and get to experience the luxury of multiple flavor profiles midday, all while minding portions and plastic usage. For Naik, the tiffin represents a mind set: How can I make eating a pleasurable journey that awakens my taste buds, satiates my appetite, and leaves me feeling satiated and, well, hugged.
As we sift through more spice options, I begin to ask Naik my most pressing questions — like how I can retain my identity and joy while implementing a plant-based diet. Don’t laugh; so much of who I am is what I taste and how it makes me feel. And my favorite way to experience something delicious and multi-faceted is while high. I don’t want to lose that.
“Yes, you get hungry when you’re high and that affects the experience, but the best part is that food tastes different,” Naik, who enjoys cooking with THC oil on occasion, says. “It’s so good. The sensation of food in your mouth — it’s a whole diff experience.” I whole-heartedly agree. She assures me that not only can I enjoy my munchies more mindfully as a vegan, but also that this new lifestyle could help me feel more open to new foods.
While we were on the subject of vices, I also wondered about hangover food. I can’t imagine the morning after a vodka-soaked night on the dancefloor without my beloved, greasy, BEC, I confess. Naik’s face lights up at this apparently easily resolved conundrum. She proceeds to spill a laundry list of vegetarian alternatives, which quite frankly, sound delicious. I could eat a toasted everything bagel with Just Eggs, vegan cream cheese, and any hot sauce I fancy; a chickpea pizza crust with chili crisp on top; and any number of vegan chicken substitutes that, Naik promises, actually taste good. I think I’m going to be alright. Still hungover, but alright.
By the time our stint in the chocolate factory comes to an end, I’m feeling pretty encouraged. Over the past few years, there has indeed been a perceptible shift in vegan culture, and I can feel it today. It’s less judgemental and rigid, and that’s in part thanks to food-lovers like Chef Naik, who make plant-focused eating more about pleasure than politics. Re-thinking my meals doesn’t need to mean a departure from who I’ve always been: a sauce-loving deviant who’s always down for a culinary adventure. If the movement makes room for all of us, I’m totally on board.